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Published on: June 12, 2014
Democracy and the World Cup

The World Cup might be more than just a celebration of jogo bonito, “the beautiful game.”

The 2014 World Cup is about to begin. From today, June 12, to July 13, two or three times a day, for ninety minutes at a time, an estimated 3.5 billion soccer fans will be glued to their television screens enjoying the sort of soccer extravaganza that only the World Cup can offer. For the non-soccer fans (that is, roughly the remaining 50 percent of the world’s population, including many Americans), it will be right there in their faces, like a drunken brother-in-law cornering them at a wedding and blocking off every avenue of escape.

Brazil 2014 will be the twentieth FIFA World Cup and the first one for which all past world champion teams (Argentina, England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Uruguay) have qualified since the first World Cup was organized in Uruguay in 1930. The run up to the 2014 World Cup has been politically charged and plagued with protests and scandals. It had been meant to showcase Brazil’s economic and democratic progress to the world. Instead, the preparations have showcased Brazil’s ongoing problems with underdevelopment and its striking socio-economic divisions, and confirmed the country’s reputation for political and economic “laissez faire,” for which Brazil is as famous as its national football team.

Just a few weeks ago, the country was still scrambling to get things ready, including a new stadium in Sao Paulo. Brazilians love soccer, but they have been questioning the extravagant expense for the World Cup ($11.5 billion), which has not delivered the improvements to public infrastructure that were promised. They are also questioning the government’s priorities in placing soccer over health and education. In response to the social unrest, Brazil’s President Dilma Roussef lashed back at the critics, saying that it was absurd to argue that money used to build the stadiums would compromise education in Brazil, that delays are part of the cost of Brazil’s being a democracy with a free media and the right to dissent, and that the protests were being manipulated by opponents of her and her political party, the PT.

Politics often manifests itself in sports, and soccer has often been used as political tool because of the ways that national and local identities become bound up in sports teams. In Europe, the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s were a formative period for soccer as an international game (1930 was the year of the first World Cup). This period was also marked by two world wars and widespread political unrest. There were many cases over these decades in which soccer transcended the realm of sport and took on a greater political significance. These cases range from tales of courageous underdogs, as with the August 1942 “Death Match”, in which Ukrainian players defeated a German military team, to stories about victorious villains, such as the World Cup victories by Fascist Italy in 1934 and 1938, or Argentina in 1978, when President Jorge Rafael Videla used the country’s World Cup to divert attention from the cruelties and human rights violations of his regime.

More recently, the relationship between politics and soccer has helped highlight and strengthen the successes of democracy around the world. The awarding of the World Cup to Japan and Korea in 2002 and to South Africa in 2010 shone a light on the progress of democracy in Asia and Africa, notoriously two of the world’s least democratic continents. In the span of one generation, Korea has transformed itself from one of the world’s poorest countries into one of its most successful economies, and it has transitioned from military rule to representative democracy. By 2002, it had established democratic institutions and met the general, albeit minimal, standards of electoral democracy, and a return to the pre-1993 days of military involvement in the political process had become virtually impossible. Similarly, by 2010, South Africa had transformed itself from an apartheid state into a functional, although problematic, democracy. The symbolic value of awarding the World Cup tournament was hard to overlook, even if, with the exception of Ghana, the majority of the African teams that have historically qualified for the tournament (Algeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, and Nigeria) hail from authoritarian rather than democratic countries.

These developments invite us to speculate on whether democracies have an edge when it comes to the World Cup. Using the Freedom House Freedom in the World ratings, which uses the level of countries political practices and institutions to determine whether a country is “free,” “partly free,” or “not free,” the 2002, 2006, and 2010 World Cups were, and the 2014 tournament will be, democratic affairs: The average score for qualifying countries is two (with one being the best and seven the worst), which counts in the rankings as “free.” Moreover, until the 2010 World Cup, democracies have won more matches than non-democracies. The win ratios of “free” countries are four times those of “partly free” countries (0.43 vs. 0.11), and countries that are considered “partly free” have won more than countries that are classified as “not free” (0.11 vs. 0.08). Skeptics might argue that these findings are simply a result of the fact that more democracies have qualified for the World Cup finals, where they play against each other.

Yet liberal democracies lose copiously, too, as the World Cup histories of France, England, and the United States show. Looking only at democratic countries, more democratic ones seem to win more than less democratic ones. If we assign Freedom House democracy scores to the national soccer teams that qualified for the 2010 World Cup, we see that 35 of the 48 matches played in the first round had a democratic differential (for example, “free” Portugal faced “partly free” Ivory Coast). “More democratic” teams won in 19 of these matches, “less democratic” teams won seven matches, and nine matches ended in draws.

The Polity IV dataset of the Polity Project allows us to replicate the earlier analysis for all World Cup tournaments. With a win ratio of 0.408, “more democratic” countries (scoring more than 5 on the Polity scale) have won slightly more than “less democratic” countries (scoring less than 5), with a win ratio of 0.376. This democratic advantage holds even for the two periods when the World Cup finals were expanded to include 24 teams (1982–1994), and 32 teams (1998–2010), thus allowing more teams from Africa, Asia, and the Americas into the mix.

A look at the GDP of the countries that have qualified for the finals since 1990 suggests that there is a per capita GDP threshold of about $2,500 beyond which countries consistently qualify. This finding hints at the fact that a variation of Lipset’s law holds for soccer. He argued that the wealthier a country is per capita, the greater the chances that it will sustain democracy; specifically, he noticed that countries that had a per capita GDP of $5,000 were less likely to slide back into autocracy, even if their progress toward liberal democracy was sluggish. In the case of the World Cup, a per capita income of $2,500 seems to greatly add to your chances of making it to the finals; yet income levels say very little about how far you go in the tournament.

Finally, China and India emerge as notable exceptions to the apparent relationship between the World Cup and political character, as neither seem to have any World Cup influence whatsoever. The popularity of soccer is high in China and rising in India, and together these two countries account for more than one-third of the world’s population, most of which is young. Yet the Chinese national team has only qualified for the finals once, in 2002; it failed not only to win any games but also to score any goals. India has never qualified to play in the tournament.

Over the past thirty years, China’s international influence has grown significantly; this influence includes the sporting world, and especially Olympic disciplines. Yet China’s has fluctuated between the seventieth and hundredth spot in the FIFA rankings. How is it that a strong state like China, with a population of 1.3 billion, many of whom are young soccer fans, has not been able to put together 22 players with enough talent to consistently qualify for the World Cup finals? The 2014 documentary, 11 Out of 1.3 Billion: Football in China, gropes for an answer to this question, suggesting as one possibility the fact that not many people play football in China (half the number who play in the Netherlands, for instance). The funding of competitive sports in China is also dominated by the state, which has placed a priority on sports disciplines that help China rack up its “medal count.” As many other non-democratic countries have found, it’s easier to invest in a large number of relatively minor sports than in sports, like soccer, which cost a lot and require decades of player development to achieve a dominant position. Interestingly enough, Deng Xiaoping was a football fan, and the early years of the economic reform process saw China climb in the soccer rankings somewhat. President Xi Jinping is also a self-declared soccer fan, and investment in football has increased significantly since he became President in late 2012.

India has never qualified for the World Cup, and its FIFA ranking (147 out of 207 countries) is poorer than China’s. As with China, India seems unable to field 22 world class players, even though 30 percent of its 1.2 billion people are in the 10–24 age bracket. Soccer in particular lacks public support and faces intense competition from cricket, which is India’s most popular sport, attracting major sponsors and media attention. Recently, the government established the Indian Super League and allowed English Premier League teams to implement talent-hunting schemes to professionalize and popularize the game of soccer across the sub-continent. These are important steps, yet there is still a long way to go before Indian soccer is ready for international competition.

Yet, for most of the 3.5 billion fans, soccer remains just jogo bonito—“the beautiful game.”

Giovanna Maria Dora Dore is a political economist, formerly at the World Bank and currently a fellow in the Asian Studies Program at the School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University.
show comments
  • PKCasimir

    Not one word in this article about the fact that FIFA is totally corrupt and that the officiating for the World Cup is, at best, incompetent, and, at worst, corrupt. Corruption and incompetence are not beautiful

    • Corlyss

      The corruption of FIFA and national officials involved in in it are the only thing remotely interesting about pro soccer.

  • Pete

    It’s still a boring game. Shows how far the rest of the world is behind America.

    • Corlyss

      Like baseball, soccer must owe its popularity to its origins in times and locations devoid of television. If I want to watch grown men run around pointlessly, I’ll go to the gym.

  • Kevin

    In speaking to young Indians, they said that soccer and basketball are now seen as the cool sports while cricket is seen as the old man’s sport. It seemed quite surprising to me and the sample size was very small, but maybe soccer’s popularity will grow rapidly in India.

    Very interesting article.

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